Kelly McGonigal is a Stanford University psychologist. Her recent TED Talk "How to Make Stress Your Friend" caught my eye this weekend, as my life has just been CHOCK FULL of stress lately! [And honestly, who among us isn't stressed at some point or other?]
She explains that while we have all spent the last 30 years or so thinking that stress, and its physical manifestations, were unhealthy, that's actually not exactly the case. Over the course of her talk, she discusses three studies that shed new light on the stress response and how to reprogram our thoughts about it to make it healthier.
The first study follows groups of people who experience varying levels of stress over several years and then tracks death records. Not only does it show that the people that believe stress can kill die at a much higher rate; but also it shows that the people who are under more stress but don't believe or know about its "negative" effects are actually healthier and more likely to live long happy lives.
She explains that it has been shown that the dangerous part of the physical stress response is in the vascular constriction that occurs while the heart is pumping at an increased rate. This vaso-constriction, however, has only been documented in people who already believe that stress is dangerous.
So what does this teach us? We need to change our beliefs about stress, that's for sure. I think it is Kelly's last statement to the interviewer at the end of her talk that had the most power for me. She is asked, to paraphrase, "So, if one is faced with a choice between a low-stress job and a high-stress job, it really doesn't matter which one you take? It's equally wise to accept the higher stress role if you think you can handle it?" She responds:
One thing we know for certain is that chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. And so I would say that's really the best way to make decisions, is go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.
The physical stress response has been shown to release the neuro-hormone oxytocin. Heard of it? If you have, it was probably in reference to cuddling and the happiness response our brain has to physical and social connections. Studies show that not only does the stress response itself NOT cause dangerous vaso-constriction but also that it allows for and increases the release of oxytocin. According to Kelly:
When oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.
The final research presented followed about 1,000 adults in the US and watched both how they described their level of stress and whether or not they spent time helping people, whether it be friends, family, or community members. It also tracked the death records of the folks in the study. The results are super cool:
For every major stressful life experience, like financial difficulties or family crisis, that increased the risk of dying by 30 percent.But -- and I hope you are expecting a but by now --but that wasn't true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. Zero. Caring created resilience. And so we see once again that the harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable.